The railroad union strike narrowly averted before the midterms has now festered into a mess as several rail unions have voted down the measure and could go on strike, completely shutting down the nation's railroads in as early as two weeks.
One of the largest railroad unions narrowly voted to reject a contract deal brokered by the White House, bringing the country once again closer to a rail strike that could paralyze much of the economy ahead of the holidays, union officials announced on Monday.
The union representing roughly 28,000 rail conductors, SMART Transportation Division, voted the deal down by 50.9 percent, the union said. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents engineers, announced on Monday that 53.5 percent of members voted to ratify the deal. These unions represent 57,000 workers and are the largest and most politically powerful of the 12 rail unions in contract discussions.
A national rail strike, which could happen as early as Dec. 5, could threaten the nation’s coal shipments, its supply of drinking water, and shut down passenger rail. The U.S. economy could lose $2 billion a day if railroad workers strike, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Already seven of 12 unions have voted to approve their contracts. But in recent weeks, three of the smaller unions, including the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, have also rejected their contracts and are back in negotiations.
The main sticking points for rank-and-file members have been over attendance and sick leave policies that penalize workers for taking time off.
“Honestly, this vote is about the frustration that the railroads have created with [their attendance policies] and the deterioration of quality of life as a result for our conductors,” Jared Cassity, the national legislative director at SMART Transportation and a conductor. “It’s about attendance policies, sick time, fatigue, and the lack of family time. A lot of these things that cannot be seen but are felt by our membership. It’s destroying their livelihoods.”
The Association of American Railroads did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cassity said the union would likely immediately resume negotiations with rail carriers as their strike deadline looms on Dec. 8
But unless Congress intervenes or a new deal is reached, workers at the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen would be allowed to strike and companies would be able to impose a lockout even sooner, right after midnight Dec. 5.
If those unions strike on Dec. 5, all of the unions would likely move in solidarity, provoking an industry-wide work stoppage.
After reaching an impasse in negotiations earlier this year, the White House appointed an emergency board in July to mediate the dispute between six major rail carriers and 12 unions that represent 115,000 railroad workers. But unions voted down that agreement.
Attendance policies have been at the heart of the dramatic showdown between the nation’s largest rail carriers and railroad workers, who did not strike after President Biden and other top administration officials brokered a last-minute agreement in late September.